When the bell rang to signify the end of the first round of a fight for the first time in his career, Edgar Berlanga walked back to his corner gesturing downwards with his hands towards the crowd, telling them to remain calm. Berlanga had to be taken beyond the first round at some point, and it was better to just get it over with. He was fine with it, he was telling them non-verbally, so they could be too.
In fact, he’d already been taken deeper into a fight than he ever had before some 15 seconds earlier, having dispatched each of his previous foes in two minutes and 45 seconds or less. Now, he’d have to consider the possibility that he might not score a knockout at all, and how he might go about winning a bout otherwise.
While the crowd jostled and the super middleweight sensation acknowledged the moment, his trainer Andre Rozier never did. When Berlanga sat down on the stool, over the next minute of rest and instruction, Rozier did not mention the streak, or even discuss knocking his opponent Demond Nicholson out. In fact, of the audio captured by ESPN microphones, the first and only time Rozier explicitly discussed a stoppage was before the eighth and final round, when he told Berlanga “you can make him quit.”
"In the gym, I'm teaching all of the physical and mental aspects of boxing. And in the corner on fight night, I'm basically a calm, cool, collected individual administering the information. So if Edgar does go past the first round, it won't be an issue. Now it's time for me to do what I do best,” Rozier told Jeff Wagenheim of ESPN earlier in the week, seemingly preparing himself for what was to come.
Nicholson didn’t quit, and didn’t fold, which was exactly what Berlanga needed to experience in order for him to truly advance out of prospecthood and into contention. Berlanga knocked Nicholson down four times, but ultimately had to beat him on the scorecards, which were a lopsided 79-68 and 79-69 twice.
Maneuvering a fighter up the rankings is a delicate balance between marketing and development, and in terms of negotiating the two, there couldn’t have been a better outcome for Berlanga and his promoter Top Rank on this occasion.
Thanks to his streak of 16 consecutive first round KOs to begin his career, Berlanga had garnered a level of attention and buzz that likely exceeded that of any other prospect in boxing. Much of the crowd on Saturday night at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, an announced “3,262 socially distanced” (a caveat which deserved a Kathryn Hahn wink beneath it from the venue, considering the crowd was both close and raucous enough that a fight broke out after the first round of Berlanga’s bout), were there to see Berlanga.
Anecdotally, Berlanga is one of a handful of fighters of any level that I have personally received inquisitive messages about from my non or casual boxing fan friends over the past year or so. As the late Emanuel Steward liked to say, “knockouts sell,” and as a result, Berlanga has found himself on SportsCenter, in GQ, and on the pages of various culture outlets across the country.
Knockouts are something the most casual fan can understand and appreciate. But for the invested fan, there reaches a point where too many consecutive finishes, particularly in the first round, becomes a reason for skepticism. Fans intimately in tune with the sport understand that a massive knockout streak can be manufactured. Case in point, the record Berlanga was ostensibly chasing is held by Ali Raymi, the late Yemeni light flyweight who rattled off 21 straight first round KOs under dubious circumstances before his untimely death in 2015.
As young fighters’ knockout counts rise, so does the suspicion that the ease with which the fights are being finished is more due to the level of opposition than the talent of the one inflicting the punishment. In Berlanga’s case, he certainly feasted on the same low-hanging fruit all prospects do in the very early stages of his career, but in more recent times, he has dispatched not just respectable opposition but historically durable opposition with the same efficiency. His most recent two opponents, Ulisses Sierra and Lanell Bellows, were meant to give him rounds, they just weren’t able to.
Beyond public perception, there also reaches a point at which first round knockouts are not only not useful in terms of a fighter improving but may actively hinder them in the long run. It’s not a coincidence, for this reason and perhaps due to ones more nefarious, that many of the fighters with the gaudiest KO streaks through the years—namely Raymi, Tyrone Brunson, Billy Fox—did not reach the sport’s highest levels.
In Nicholson, Berlanga encountered a fighter he could hurt but not finish, and one that was impacted by his power but not fearful of it, right to the final bell. It was an instructive step closer to the deep waters that taught him lessons he can carry with him when it’s finally time to swim against the current.
And in terms of maintaining the frequency of his buzz, Berlanga still scored four knockdowns. His highlight reel added a handful of new clips, and for narrative’s sake, one can still say that he has stopped or dropped every single opponent he’s faced to this point in his career.
Even the most dangerous punchers in the history of boxing have eventually encountered opponents who they not only couldn’t stop, but couldn’t drop or visibly hurt. Just as exceptionally strong fighters are born, so are exceptionally durable ones. The next step for Berlanga will be to figure out how to deal with one of those.
After the bell sounded to conclude the fight, Berlanga dropped down and did pushups, as penance, he said, for not adequately listening to Rozier, and not jabbing and throwing to the body enough. The streak was already in the past, and he had both the desire and the energy to improve even mere seconds after the fight.